Friday, May 20, 2011

Exploring The Past With Colleen Frakes & Nomi Kane

Nomi Kane and Colleen Frakes have done recent minicomics that are quite personal in different ways. Frakes is best known for her dark takes on fables and myth making and even says in her new comic Island Brat (Koyama Press) that she's generally uncomfortable doing autobio comics. She makes that clear with her self-caricature, a wonderfully twisted series of angles that's usually positioned at a weird angle relative to the panel she's in. Her image also rarely looks directly at the reader; even when she faces the reader, her dot eyes dart to the side, up or down. There's a story she wants to tell, but she's uncomfortable being at the center of it.

It's not even a particular narrative she wants to tell, exactly, which I think is part of her awkwardness. Essentially, this comic is about her feelings regarding the closure of what passes for a home town: an island near the state of Washington that housed a prison. The island was only accessible by air or sea. The rest of the island was a nature preserve, so she grew up in what amounted to living as a pioneer of sorts, or perhaps a member of "the Others" on the TV show Lost, given that they had modern amenities in the middle of an island wilderness. The state decided to close the prison to save money and so the island would be shut off from the public from that time forward. Frakes and her family were invited to the closing ceremonies, and the bulk of the comic concerns her family's tour of the island and her own flashbacks to life there.

Frakes was not happy to live there as a teen, given that none of her friends would visit her there, that she couldn't swim in the ocean because of currents and because she could only have limited interaction with the woods because it was a preserve. In short, living there was frequently weird and boring. As an adult, she remembered with a bit more fondness having the opportunity to hang out at the beach whenever she wanted and the thrill of seeing dolphins jump in the ocean. It must have incredibly jarring for Frakes to go from a decade of island living in a tiny, close-knit community to go to college. At the same time, I imagine going to tiny White River Junction to attend the Center for Cartoon Studies must have been a little like going back home--only this time with a group that became close-knit by dint of their mutual passion.

More than anything, one gets the sense that this was a comic that Frakes felt she had to do, not just wanted to do. It's as though she sensed the window was closing to record and appreciate these memories and share them with others. In many respects, this comic was as for her family as much as it was about herself, and as such it's far more personal, specific and personal than the average diary comic. She documents a particular time, place and a set of feelings centered around being a teenager--the most volatile and melodramatic part of anyone's life. As a work of art, it holds the status of personal but minor work. Its structure is all over the place, lurching from past to present, with the present-day tour being of less natural interest to the reader than a more detailed depiction of growing up in such an unusual environment. Indeed, if Frakes had been more interested in exploiting her past for purely narrative purposes, she likely would have minimized the modern-day scenes with her family or simply used them as a framing device. Instead, she chose to focus the story on honoring and respecting her past, coming to terms with and appreciating an experience that has now completely passed her by, one that she couldn't fully grasp while she was living it. I can actually see a longer work being born out of this placeholder, but it's already clear that her other tales of loners, orphans and the otherwise isolated already have their roots in her experiences.

In Sugar Baby, Nomi Kane takes a different approach. The newly-minted graduate of CCS put together a simple but elegant package about her childhood experiences with diabetes. Oddly enough, fellow CCS grad Sam Gaskin had a similar comic called Sugar Cube that was about the same experience, though it was told in a very different fashion. Kane's clear, simple line is used to great effect as she puts together cleverly designed vignettes. Kane at times steers into public service announcement territory with short bits about how she dealt with the fear and anxiety related to diabetes at both a physical and social level. However, diabetes also acts as a framework for her narrative and as an antagonist for her character. That loose framework allows for a lot of vignettes about her family, including one story about a relative who shows her how to put on makeup and another story about Passover in her house.

Kane is a crisp storyteller and her pages are light and airy. There were times I wished she had used blacks or hatching a bit more often just to add a bit of density to her pages. There were times when her pages lacked weight simply because of the way she structured them, with eye-popping images sometimes occurring away from the center. Kane gave equal weight to every panel, it seems, and without leading the eye to certain key panels, certain images (like vomiting at a doctor's office or seeing an array of needles) lost some of their power. That said, Kane gets lots of key details right. Her lettering and logo design are both impeccable. She combines a certain looseness of detail with her naturalistic rendering approach. Her faces are expressive and her use of body language helps convey a lot of information without words. Like Frakes, there's a tight bond with the rest of her family that's an inextricable part of her personal narrative.

Kane obviously has a lot of talent and is comfortable working her way around a page. I usually tend to tell young cartoonists to clean up their line because they over-render. In Kane's case, there were times that I thought she under-rendered, where a more detailed line could have added additional poignancy to Kane's childhood dilemma. Indeed, the scenes where young Nomi is in a car are some of the most memorable because Kane pays so much attention to hatching the car seats. I understand that she was going for a positive and uplifting book and genuinely had a great time being raised by her family, but I wish she had pushed the boundaries of her storytelling a little bit more. I'll be curious to see if Kane's comics continue to be on the ephemeral side, if she evolves into a completely different kind of cartoonist over time or if she manages to combine the frothier aspects of her comics with a darker tone. Since her storytelling fundamentals are so rock-solid, Kane is one artist that I'd really like to see experiment as much as possible with a more immersive style.

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